What’s it like to be a Video Games Tester?

I never thought I’d tell this story in full but I’ve had a little niggling itch recently that just kept telling me to do it. It’s something that changed my life forever when it took place, and all for the better too. 15 years ago, I was a professional video games tester, for a short time. 6 weeks to be precise. I sold it to myself as my own personal dream job. I’ve played video games all of my life, who the hell wouldn’t want to be paid for it?? And in a full-time role no less! I eventually left the company under very bad circumstances, which I’ll get to later, so I won’t be naming names of companies, staff, games, or systems I played on. I’ll give as much info as is possible though so you’re not completely lost. Also, images I use are not of the workplace where I was based, they’re simply used to give an idea of what the working environment was like for me.

I have no idea where I found the job, or how I applied for it. I don’t even remember the interview process though I imagine it was simply a one to one, get to know you and find out about my game playing history kinda thing. Needless to say, when I got the call / e-mail back to say I had got the job, I was ecstatic. Anyone who knows me would tell you that at that particular time in my life, this was the perfect job for me. It rolled up everything I was into in one neat little package. I was to work a shift pattern of 4 days on, 4 days off, I think it was an 8 – 6 shift, with a hours lunch in the middle. Minimum wage of course, but this was my first full-time job, at the age of 20, and I didn’t care. There were 4 of us starting on the same day, so I wasn’t heading in to this on my own. I went in for my first day, and was introduced to my supervisor. For the purpose of this article, let’s call him Walt. Walt was an awesome guy, very friendly, helpful, and for those first couple of weeks he seemed to always be available to us should we need the assistance. He helped me out a lot in understanding the processes expected of me in my testing, as it wasn’t always made clear.

Exaggerated, but not far from the truth

My job was within the ‘Localisation’ department. Essentially, I would be expected to play foreign language versions of games in an attempt to find out if the bugs and glitches found in the English version had transferred over to the German, Spanish, French, etc. It would be a bit annoying having to deal with languages I didn’t understand for the most part but that was the role and I was ready to do it. We were assigned our own systems, so if anything was ever to happen with them, we knew who was responsible for the problem, or at least who should have known where their own systems were. It was nice to have that bit of individuality in the office but the items were not to leave the office under any circumstances.

I sat down at my desk for my first shift, eager to get stuck into some top unreleased game and was handed my handheld system. So I’d be playing on the small screen, should be interesting. I was then handed the copy of the game I was testing, so I placed it inside the handheld and booted it up. I couldn’t tell for sure from the title screen, but it looked to be some sort of travel guide. I asked Walt, “Are we testing a travel guide?” He looked a bit sheepish, “Yeah man, this is your first assignment. I know it’s not what you would have expected on your first day, but welcome to games testing.” I heaved a sigh, but booted it up anyway. I was ‘playing’ it in German, and was learning all about the love capital of the world, Paris. Or at least I would be if it wasn’t all Germanic. The audio was also in German, so I had to take the guides word for it that it knew what it was talking about.

So my job was to break the game. See if anything was wrong with it. If I did happen to find a glitch or bug, I was to document everything about it. How I found it, the circumstances within the title that led to it being found, how severe it was, what category of bug it was, there were all kinds of things to record down. 5 days I spent on this travel guide. FIVE DAYS. Me and the other 3 guys were almost crying by the end of that week, it was painful. I also very quickly found I was experiencing side effects from sitting in front of a handheld console for 9 hours each day. On finishing my shifts, I was going home with slightly warped version, like I felt a little drunk. Focusing your eyes on something constantly 10 – 15 inches away from you was not a great idea. It finally hit home that all of these health warnings you’d find in the back of game manuals weren’t talking rubbish after all. TAKE A BREAK!!!

Not too dissimilar to how it was laid out where I worked, but we had CRT TVs at the time

The travel guide was over. Thank the heavens. I was sticking with my handheld for my next assignment, which was a basketball title. I’m not the biggest fan of basketball, but I’d played the likes of Total NBA ’96 for PS1 and NBA Live ’95 for the SNES. Both good games, but never hooked me. I saw basketball as a game that was so back and forth end to end, both teams playing catch-up all the way through that I always wondered why they didn’t just play 5 minutes instead, for it always seemed to be the last few minutes of the matches was were it all went off. Anywho, basketball it was then, and while I didn’t have to suffer for 5 days with this, it was still very repetitive. A rap / R & B soundtrack played on a loop with what felt like the same 15 – 20 songs over, and over, and over again. I hate those genres of music as it is, so my ears weren’t happy. The game was fun, but the AI was very manipulative. Despite playing it as much as I did and getting a lot better, the AI just always seemed to behave as if my buttons were telegraphed to it micro-seconds before it reacted. I wasn’t having fun. My fingers were on the verge of blistering as well. I wasn’t used to this type of sports game, and neither were my hands. No bugs with this one.

I moved on to a fighting game series, one of the more famous ones out there. This was also to be played on a console system on the TV so I could finally give my eyes a rest! I’m not a fighting game fan, they always seem so convoluted with their excessive combos, and when I hear things like ‘juggling’, ‘wave-dashing’, ‘focus attacks’, I just don’t get it. Give me a beat-em-up like Streets of Rage anyway, just get stuck straight into kicking ass. None of these 10 button combos to then miss an attack because it took so long to pull off.

So I was stuck with this fighting game, but I enjoyed it. Well, I enjoyed the adventure mode that it had. It was lengthy, with a fun story, and an immense cast of characters who I was fairly familiar with from exposure to the series over the years. I didn’t improve with the combos whilst playing it, so I just button bashed and got through it that way. Again, no bugs and glitches after a few days testing this one, but for the first time since starting my job, I was enjoying myself! Then the travel guide came back. We had nothing else in the immediate pipe-line to test so were expected to go back to this tripe and suffer more anguish. This was one of the more frustrating reality slaps with this job, that you don’t see coming. People hear ‘games tester’ and assume you just walk into work, pick a game to play, kick up your feet and enjoy your shift. Hell no, it’s nothing like this at all. You’re not given a choice in what you’re playing, you’re given whatever is in at that given moment. It was a hard pill to swallow but swallow I did.

After languishing in Parisian hell for another day and a half, I was given a football game to test. FINALLY, something I could relate to! Not my favourite series of football games mind you, but still, rather this than hear about French cafes in a German language for another 9 hours. Sadly, it was on the handheld this time, so I’d have to deal with optic issues again. I also found my first bug. This particular football game had the option for a radar on the bottom of the screen, so you could use a bit of strategy in spotting potential long passes across the field that you couldn’t see in the limited view point you had on screen. Well, I noticed with certain match-ups that despite you and your opposition playing in totally different colours, the radar sometimes didn’t differentiate between the two and opted to choose the same colour for both teams. Basically, you couldn’t tell which of the blips on the radar were your team mates because everyone looked the same.

If this had been the bug I’d found, I’d have NEVER reported it just so the game was released with it

I was excited! My first bug report! I was able to replicate the bug so included this little nugget of info, and explained why I thought it was happening. It was a great feeling where for once I felt like I was properly doing my job now, not just sitting on my ass playing foreign language games for the fun of it but actually contributing to the development process. The developers of the games I tested were required to have all titles tested before release, as a legality to say it’s been quality controlled like most products are. It was a buzz for me to think this report of mine would go back to them and allow them to fix what was a very bad bug which could seriously hinder your game playing experience.

The other employees of the company were quite the different breed. It was like a living, breathing version of Twitch. Some of the staff were extremely pretentious, and thought they were the dogs bollocks because half of their personal gaming collections came from Japan. Some were quite quiet and kept themselves to themselves, and then there were the ‘zany’ few that you get in all work places who feel the need to let you know they’re there, simply because that’s their function. A fair few didn’t have social lives, opting instead to allow the world of gaming to fulfil their everyday life’s needs. There weren’t as many oddballs there as you might expect, though there was one stand-out Japanese fanboy who was a lot of fun to be around. Funnily enough, it felt like the 3 other guys I’d started with were the most normal chaps there.

There were definitely some of these in the office

Oh, I have to tell you about the snack machines! There were coke machines and the usual crisps / chocolate bar machines, side by side. It blew my mind at the time, but the company had changed the prices on the machines so that everything was 10p each. Cans of coke and Fanta, bars of Dairy Milk, bags of Walkers crisps, all 10p each. I revelled in it, and this lasted a couple of weeks before I started wondering if this was why some of the staff were so absolutely overweight and hard of breathing with severe acne to boot. I tried to stop falling for the products but at 10p a pop, it was difficult.

I tested a Sim City style game, which was fun, but very difficult to enjoy with the Spanish language ruling its menus. My final game, console based was a great experience. It’s also the reason I ended up losing my job there. I was in my 6th week with the company and was handed this title which has become a bit of a cult classic now. An open world title, it was the usual fare of playing a protagonist who’s assigned missions, and can get involved with side-quests or just explore the game world around you with little restriction. I was LOVING this game. Annoyingly, I took over this assignment a couple of days after the other team of staff had started it, so the save game I was presented was nearly at a full completion status. I tried not to let this mar the enjoyment I was getting out of it, and just carried on exploring.

Then I made my big mistake. I went online to GameFAQs, which at the time was one of the largest message board communities in the world where gaming was concerned. I’d been a member for years, even becoming an actual boards moderator at one time before getting my account and email accounts hacked by an outsider, but that’s a different story altogether. Anywho, I was so enthused about this game I was testing, I decided to go on the dedicated board for it on GameFAQs, let the members know I was currently involved with testing it, and field some questions. I wouldn’t exactly be telling them anything new, the game had been getting previewed heavily and was hyped up to the max but still, I was passionate about it and wanted to share my liking for the game. I answered questions and the board members were happy.

My haven for years when it came to gaming discussions

This happened over a couple of days, and I thought nothing of it. The next day at work, I was called into my bosses office. He was there with one of the other teams boss and they sat me down. The conversation went like this:

“So Carl, we’ve had a situation arise. Quite a serious one, and we needed to discuss it with you.”
“Ok…”
“We have reason to believe that one of our testers for this particular game has been posting on certain message boards about their experiences whilst playing it, and we think that it’s you. We cross-referenced the user-name used for posting across other pages on the internet and-”
“Yeah, that’s me who’s been posting.”
*Surpised* “What, you admit it?”
“Well yeah, that’s my account, I was talking about the game. I wasn’t exactly saying anything you couldn’t already read elsewhere online. I never read or signed anything in my contract which said I couldn’t do this so I didn’t think there’d be a problem.”
“Right… well, this is where our issue lies. We have a non-disclosure agreement with the developer of this particular game, who brought your posts to our attention, and they’re not happy. They’re quite pissed to be frank. We have two options here regarding this. They have threatened to sue us for breach of contract, and they’re well within their right to do so. You as our employee have breached that contract and it’s reflected very poorly on us. They’re willing to pull back on any action however, if we act upon what has happened and terminate your contract with us. You’re still on probation with us, and this being a serious breach of your employment Ts and Cs, we have to let you go. Go grab your stuff, Walt will see you out.”

I was shell-shocked. Now, at the age of 34, I look back and can see just how absolutely STUPID I was for posting anything online about the job I was doing. Of course I shouldn’t have disclosed anything I was doing and experienced. I had no knowledge of working with NDAs however and I never had them explained at this company. I maintain to this day that I did not sign anything to do with non-disclosure agreements nor did my contract have anything to that effect in it. In the weeks following my termination, I twice requested some proof of any signature I had written out which supported any NDA agreement they said I had agreed to. They never replied or sent anything back to me. I’d have been content that I was fully in the wrong had I been presented with such signed documentation but it never came back to me.

This all happened at a time when I was also having personal problems with family and friends, and as I was now unemployed I decided to take a chance and moved down south to be with my girlfriend who stuck with me through a hell of a trying time for more reasons than just the job. Nearly 15 years later and we’re married, have two kids, I have a job I am loving at this time, and I now look back at those 6 weeks as a hellish time in my life. I hated the job. I slowly began to resent games and was going home no longer wanting to play anything in my own time. The health repercussions were concerning, and I just really hated the lack of control I felt I had there.

I swear this is how I’d have looked if I’d stayed there

Being a games tester is, I’m sure, still the dream job for countless gamers out there, uneducated to the true role which lies behind the title. I’m glad I got the experience under my belt, as I’d have forever been wondering what it was like, wishing I’d had a chance to do it at some point. I did it. I hated it. I’d never do it again. I enjoy gaming in my own time, with my own decisions on what I’m going to play, for how long I want to play it, in the comfort of my own home. I never kept in touch with any of the guys who I worked there with, though I do know close friends who worked there after I left, for years and who absolutely love the job. Different horses I guess.

Oh and one last thing, that football bug I found? With the radar problem? It never got fixed even after I reported it. The game was released, I picked it up years later, and found the exact same problem was there. It dawned on me that the developers didn’t care what state their game was in, as long as they were of the belief that they were finished and had their QC check ticked off on their legal list of things to do to get it released. It made me feel like all those guys sat there for those draining shifts are simply playing games because some developer has to get their titles ‘checked’, and any reports they do are a waste of time and for nothing. It doesn’t get fixed. That’s the gaming industry for you. They should be thankful they can at least patch their games these days, and my experience as a tester has led me to not be surprised at all that games are being released today as buggy messes. “How did they miss that in the testing stage??” I’m of the belief that testers are not missing these bugs at all, it’s that some of the big developers just don’t give a damn and can’t be bothered going back to fix it until it becomes a minor PR situation for them. A shame.